Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Authority of Human Institutions

Thursday, April 19, 2012 -- Week of Easter 2
Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Martyr, 1012

Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 959)
Psalms  18:1-20 (morning)        //        18:21-50 (evening)
Exodus 16:10-21
1 Peter 2:11-25
John 15:12-27  

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today's scripture readings.]

Part of today's reading from 1 Peter is a scripture passage that sometimes shows up at events that have a tenor of civic religion -- the National Day of Prayer, inaugurations or swearing-ins of governmental officials, the 4th of July, or the "God and Country Sunday" that is a custom among some churches on the Sunday nearest the 4th of July. 

"For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right...  Honor everyone.  Love the family of believers.  Fear God.  Honor the emperor."  (1 Peter 2:13-14, 17)

One of the ironies of reading such Biblical instruction in an American context is that scriptures such as these were used to condemn democratic movements in the name of the Divine Right of Kings.  Tories who opposed the American Revolution could demand allegiance to King George III in the name of God -- "For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether the King as supreme, or governors, as sent by him..." 

The other great struggle for independence in our nation's history was similarly sabotaged by good Bible-quoting Christians familiar with this portion of 1 Peter some 85 years later.  "Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference..."  (1 Peter 2:18)

(We'll omit from our Daily Offices reading tomorrow the continuing instruction, "Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands...  Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing..." 1 Peter 3:1f)

There are tensions in both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament between respectable conformity to social norms and the call to challenge unjust or oppressive authority in the name of God.  Moses would not have spoken like 1 Peter to Pharaoh.  Amos and Proverbs inhabit different worlds.  And while Paul encourages deportment that would allow the congregation to fly below the radar of civil authorities, he writes revolutionary rhetoric of Jesus, confiscating the emperor's divine titles for Christ.

There is an underlying consistency among these texts, however, and that is the affirmation of the dignity of one who honors God regardless of that person's social or political standing.  In God's eyes, the slave is honored, the subordinate respected, the prisoner cherished, the oppressed borne up.  It is out of this basic orientation of respect and dignity for all of God's children that Christians have embraced movements to expand freedom and equality in the name of God, including movements that challenge and attempt to destroy the authority of some human institutions. 

Since Jesus was a victim of the injustice of human institutions, we might keep a wary eye toward their tendencies for the abuse of power.  God's preferential option for the poor and for the oppressed is a far more frequent and persuasive theme throughout scripture than the occasional deference toward human institutions of authority.


Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Go to:

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at

Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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